by Cassandra Austen
Publication Date: December 31, 2018
Apollo Grannus Books
eBook & Paperback; 340 Pages
When the old earl dies, his only child feels no sorrow. The earldom will now revert to the crown and Lady Catherine will continue to live life exactly as she pleases. But when she learns that she is the heir to a secret family title, everything changes.
Marriage had once seemed unnecessary and out of the question; now it is the only thing she wants. The two men in her life both need her influence and wealth. Whom shall she choose? The kind but secretive Captain Avebury? Or the notorious Sir Lyle, the handsome smuggler? Both men deal very differently with honor. And when Catherine's secret self-destructs, which man can be trusted to save her?
The Portrait is about a strong woman, foolish decisions, trust, and the definition of honor. Fans of Jane Austen's independent women will recognize in Catherine a voice which will not be silenced.
She lives and works in her 1700s farmhouse in northern New England, but you are welcome to visit her at her virtual home: cassandraausten.com. You can also find Cassandra on Facebook, Instagram, and Goodreads.
“Your mother, Lady Catherine, was the Countess Delamare through her marriage to your father. But she was also the Countess St Clair, a title she held in her own right from her mother, the previous Countess St Clair.”
“But I have never heard of such a thing!” Catherine protested, a little alarmed. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“Most certainly. In fact, all of the staff here at Albrook knew her as the Countess St Clair before she married your father.” He paused. “After you were born, however …” His voice faltered, but his gaze held steady. “… after you were born, the staff were forbidden to mention your name, and certainly never to speak of you as the heiress to the St Clair title. In fact, he allowed people to assume that your mother had ceded it to him on their marriage. Nevertheless, you have been the Countess St Clair since your mother’s death.”
Catherine jerked back in her seat. Her voice trembled. “Who-who is responsible for keeping this from me?” she managed to choke out.
“Primarily, your mother,” Beaseley said. “She feared what would happen if it became known while you were still a child that you were both extravagantly wealthy and held your own title. She did not want evil people to manipulate you for their own gain. And she hoped that your father would come to love you as his own flesh and blood, without the constant reminder—”
“—that my mother had borne an heiress for her own line and left his bankrupt! Oh, how she misjudged him!” she cried. “My poor mother! She thought that her actions would protect me, but she underestimated the power of my father’s resentment!”
“And secondarily, of course, your father. As I said, he would not permit the name to be mentioned in this house, the servants could not address you as countess and, when he sent you to Wansdyke, he dismissed the old servants. No one knew your mother or could tell you anything about her.”
Catherine felt numbly in her pocket for a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes, but they filled again. She was unaccustomed to having her armour pierced. Venturing into the hotbed of gossip that was Bath after years spent alone at Wansdyke had taught her how to maintain her calm. It had not been easy to insinuate herself into society; it would have been far easier to remain in seclusion as her father had intended. Those difficult first excursions into the public eye – when she had been stared at, whispered about, and occasionally laughed at – had led her to believe she could endure anything.
But now she discovered she was not quite at that point. There was, apparently, some feeling in her yet.
“Shall I send for Clara, my lady?” Beaseley was looking concerned. She shook her head.
“No.” She choked a little on the word, but raised her head. “No. I … there are things I need to know, questions …”
“Of course, my lady.” He bowed. For a moment, the silence hung thick between them.
Catherine spoke. Her voice rasped. “This is in writing?”
“Yes. That was the source of the disagreement when the marriage contract was drawn up. Your mother insisted that the St Clair properties were to be held in trust for future heirs to the title. They never entered your father’s hands. The documents are in my possession. Your mother passed them to me and required my oath of secrecy.” He looked deeply upset. “I am sorry that I felt I could not honour her request to the end. With your father so ill – and unsure as I am when I might see you next – it seemed impossible.”
Catherine shook her head. She was still confused. “My mother, and her mother before her – Countess St Clair. Does the title only pass through the female line?”
“No, my lady. It is an earldom.”
“An earldom!” For a moment, she couldn’t speak. Beaseley filled the silence for her.
“It is a very old title, much older than your father’s. It was originally meant to pass to heirs general – the heir might be male or female, at the pleasure of the Crown. But your grandmother was the only living heir of the last earl, and your mother was her only heir, so both became countess without challenge. Should you have a son, he would become the next Earl St Clair.”
A son! The thought had never entered Catherine’s mind. She had a fleeting image of a plump golden-haired child, laughing and toddling. A son who would become the next Earl St Clair. She shuddered and chided herself. It was a ridiculous, far-fetched thought.
She looked at Beaseley blankly.
“You have a castle in Wales,” he continued. “It is more or less in ruins, although there is a manor house on the site as well. It has not been lived in for a very long time, although it is the seat of the St Clairs – with the line passing through several females, maintaining even that has been a difficult task. The women married into other families,” Beaseley said apologetically. “And they … well, they made only token acknowledgement of the needs of the St Clair estates. But if … if there were a male heir, the family could thrive and grow once more.”
Catherine stared. This hardly seemed possible. A male heir? A St Clair earl?
She suddenly understood. This was why her father was so deeply angry. This was why he wanted her hidden away in Bath. Because, were she to one day bear a son, the St Clair dynasty would live to see another century but the Clavertons would be gone.
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